Through the Willow Arch: Spring

Susan Barker, Community Gardens ManagerWelcome to the second edition of our garden blog “Through the Willow Arch” so called because the willow arch forms the entrance to our lovely community gardens. Regularly through the year I will be using the blog to talk about the plants in our gardens, the food we grow for our café and the tasks we’re working on. I want to celebrate and share this beautiful urban oasis. Hope you enjoy.

Susan Barker, Community Gardens Manager

Spring March/April 2017

Through the Willow arch this spring…. despite the dry and cold weather, the garden has been coming back to life. At first there were small early signs as the hawthorn and willow unfurled tiny leaves, blackthorn and hazel blossomed, and primrose and sweet violets flowered, then before you know it everything came bubbling up out of the ground and hedgerows, green and bright, like they’d never heard of frost.

Blackthorn flowers 'Prunus spinosa' sparkle in the early springPrimroses 'Primula vulgaris' and sweet violets 'Viola odorata' carpet the ground under the silver birch in the front gardenStems and first leaves on the willow arch makes striking patterns against a grey spring sky

The willow always seems keen to get started, the first leaves on the willow arch a gentle start to what will become the wild mane of its branches come summer. The wonderful weeping willow at the heart of the farmyard brings a sheen of lime-green over the duck pond long before any of the surrounding trees. It’s great to see so many colours gradually return to the gardens with, amongst others, the mounds of pink and blue flowers on the lungwort ‘Pulmonaria officinalis’ in the shade border, purple flowers of the Pasque flower ‘Pulsitilla vulgaris’, the speckled pinks of the Hellebores and the stunning yellows and reds of the tulips that frame the willow arch.

Willow 'Salix alba' over the
duck-pond is one of the first trees to show green
A burst of fresh spring colour in the woodlandYellow and red tulips frame the willow arch
Mounds of lungwort 'Pulmonaria officinalis' provide good early flowers for pollinators Fronds of Male fern 'Dryopteris filix-mas' unfurl among the hellebores

A few of the leaves unfurling will be our first spring crops for the café – the rhubarb and the wild garlic. Wild garlic is used for pesto in the cafe before its white flowers froth through the woods in early summer. With the rhubarb it’s not actually the leaves of the rhubarb we use but the lush pink stems that follow. We pull the whole stem from the base and trim the leaf and top inches of the stem (which will go straight in the compost as the leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid which would be unpleasant to eat). Rhubarb is perennial and will come back each year, especially if you stop pulling it in July, to let it recharge and give it a good mulch of compost in the autumn. This is good news as it is popular with the café and they have a number of fantastic ways to transform it into pudding.

It's rhubarb o'clock! The fantastically named 'Rheum rhabarbarum' Wild garlic 'Allium ursinum' at the base of a silver birch

A lovely variation on traditional rhubarb and custard is the café’s tart recipe:

Rhubarb and Custard Tarts

For the custard tarts

1 whole egg (large)

2 egg yolks (large)

115g golden caster sugar

2 tbsp cornflour

400ml full fat (creamy) milk

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 sheet ready rolled puff pastry



For the topping

250g rhubarb

50g golden caster sugar

sprinkle of sieved icing sugarrhubarb tarts from the cafe

1) Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Rinse the rhubarb and shake off the excess water. Trim the ends and cut the rhubarb into little finger-sized pieces. Put the rhubarb in a shallow dish or baking sheet with sides, tip the sugar over, toss together, then shuffle the rhubarb so it’s in a single layer.

2) Cover with foil and roast for 15 mins. Remove the foil. The sugar should have dissolved, so give everything a little shake and roast for another 5 mins or until tender and the juices are syrupy. Test with a sharp knife; the rhubarb should feel tender, not mushy, and still have kept its shape. Leave to cool.

3) Lightly grease a 12 hole muffin tin.

4) Put egg, yolks, sugar and cornflour in a pan and mix well together then gradually add the milk until mixture is well mixed and smooth. Place pan on medium heat and stir constantly until mixture thickens and comes to the boil. Remove pan from heat and stir in vanilla extract.

5) Put custard in a glass/ceramic bowl to cool and cover with cling film to prevent skin forming.

6) Cut pastry sheet into 5” squares and  tuck each square into the 12 muffin tin rounds.

7) Spoon in the cooled custard and bake for 20-25mins until golden on top. Leave to cool in the tin for 5mins then move to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

8) Spoon the cooled rhubarb onto the top of the tart with a sprinkle of icing sugar.

Download the recipe (pdf)

Meanwhile back in the gardens we have been:

  • propagating from seed like there’s no tomorrow! Everything from chillies, chard, kale and lettuce to sage, thyme, chervil, and basil. We are growing edible flowers like borage, nasturtiums and calendula, garden flowers from sunflowers to zinnias and wildflowers like cornflower, yarrow and red campion. These are variously headed to the café via the vegetable patch, the pollination borders and the plant stall. Come along and visit our plant stall at our ‘Wild Outdoors Day’ on Saturday May 13th.
  • growing lots of hot peppers – 11 varieties in all from the very sweet ‘Sweet Nardello’ through the hot and brightly coloured Numex Twilight and Demon Red to the really punchy ‘Basket of Fire’ and ‘Scotch bonnet red’. Look out for our chilli event later this year!
  • cutting nettles to make liquid feed for our chillies, tomatoes and cucumbers growing under cover. We don’t add water to the nettles, just fill up a small water butt with as much leaf and stem as will fit, then after a few weeks, add a few drops of the concentrated liquid that comes out of the tap at the bottom into the watering can before watering.
  • sowing carrots, beetroot, chard and peas direct with the peas benefiting from all the branches blown down from the silver birch in a March storm acting as pea sticks.
  • developing a new ‘Peace Garden’ area with seating amidst planting of all white flowers, to create a peaceful place in the gardens to rest and reflect amongst the hustle of this busy city life.

Kale and tomato seedlings coming on in the greenhousePeas 'Pisum sativum Meteor' start to twine their clever tendrils around the pea sticks

Nettles 'Urtica dioica' is prolific
on the fertile soil around the farm


If you would like to view larger versions of the photos featured in this blog, please click on a thumbnail below: